[Review] – Robot & Frank

7 Sep

Title: Robot & Frank
Year: 2012
Director: Jake Schreier
Writer: Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Sisto
MPAA Rating: PG-13, some language
Runtime: 89 min
IMDb Rating: 7.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Metacritic: 67

Ever since I heard about this film, with good word coming out about it from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the moment I got to watch it. The plot was just tremendous and impossible to resist: you have an old man who used to be a cat burglar and his kids who no longer think their dad can be left alone and instead of sending him to a home they buy him a robot that walks, talks and is supposed to impove their father’s health, both mental and physical. What happens instead is that their dad enlists the robot to help him carry out a heist and win the affection of the local librarian.

Like I said, that plot description is just genius, and with the great word coming off from Sundance and how good the trailer was, my excitement was just building and building for this one. That had a lot to do with the cast, too, which includes the great Frank Langella as the titular Frank, Peter Sarsgaard voicing the Robot, Liv Tyler and James Marsden playing Frank’s children, and Susan Sarandon as the librarian he wants to win over. It couldn’t really go wrong now, could it?

Well, no, no it couldn’t. Robot & Frank is an absolutely winning film, knowing exactly how to balance the two elements it had working for it. On the one hand, just like the premise would suggest, this is one is a lovely little indie with all its quirks and funny moments; and on the other hand, it also has far more serious things to say about what it means to grow old, about parenthood and technology. All of that is balanced to perfection here by director Jack Schreier, who makes his feature debut here, helped out by a great cast, led by Mr. Langella who really gives one of the better performances of the year to date. This one’s just a terrific film.

It’s just the ease with which this film managed to achieve that perfect balance, being hilarious and romantic and heartbreaking all at the same time, just an absolutely delight. I loved this film because you just can’t anticipate how this one so cleverly sneaks up on you, because at first you may think you’ve seen this kind of thing before, that this is somewhat clichéd material, and then it starts showing you its layers, full of a great variety of things, and by the time it’s over you’ll realize that this is the kind of movie that will stay with you. Those are the best kinds of little films.

You can also look at it as a buddy movie, with this cranky old man learning to embrace his new technological sidekick. And as that it also works, it’s great seeing the relationship between the two develop; Frank refuses, on principle, to even name the machine, and one of the reasons he frequents the library so much (other than the fact that he has a sweet spot for the librarian) is that he hates reading on digital devices, and then you have this slick-white Robot that’s always super polite telling him how to improve his lifestyle. And then Frank realizes that he’s better off with his new companion, and that not only is he improving his current lifestyle, but he’s how he’ll get to get a taste of his old one, too.

Plus, it’s also kind of cool to see this sort of new spin on the intelligent robot. After all, in most films in which robots have minds of their own we get this futuristic landscape in which they’ll eventually figure out they’re way ahead of us and figure out that they’re better off without us and slowly but surely kill us all. Here, in the not too distant future this film presents, the robot is just there to remind us to get out more and eat our vegetables. And you can even train him to pick locks if you want to.

Again, though, Robot & Frank is so great because of how it doesn’t take the predictable path. You’d imagine this crazy romp with our titular twosome just having fun and pulling off this heist to get this old book. But no, this one is grounded with this very real sense of poignancy, and Frank may be super cranky like so many old men we’ve seen in comedies, but the way Mr. Langella so brilliantly plays him you get this really nice turn that shows you that the foul mood he’s in has a lot to do with the fact that he realizes that neither his body nor mind work for him as they once used to, and that their functions are now being carried out by a lifeless bot.

Everything is done ever so delicately, so modestly that you don’t notice how exceptionally well it works until it’s over, and that the parallels between this tale and that of the book they’re trying to steal, Don Quixote, aren’t as obvious as you’d think as you’re watching the movie. The final act is a bit too forced, at least when compared to the genius subtlety of what preceded it, which is why I’m not going out there and ranking this one a tad higher, but this is still a great, great movie with a great, great cast that you should go out of your way to seek out.

There’s a lot you can talk about after seeing this one, too, which is always a great indicator of just how well the movie worked. There are all these philosophical quandaries presented, about the role of technology in our lives, about love, about being alone, about family, and they’re so brilliantly and cleverly presented to us here. Of course it helps if you have Frank Langella doing the presenting, one of the finest actors around always in touch with the complexity of what’s going on in his character’s life, many times being the sole human presence on screen and just knocking this one out of the park.

Grade: A-

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